Culture  Giving Outreach students a voice and a pen

En Masse artist collective transforms installation piece into mentorship project

Can art change lives? That’s the question that motivated local drawing collective En Masse to work with 12 teenagers from Montreal’s English Language School Board (EMSB) to create a large scale in situ mural at Red Bird Studio in Mile End this month.

En Masse was created last February after founder Jason Botkin and a handful of fellow artists were given the chance to show their work at Galerie Pangée in Old Montreal. Botkin remembers thinking that “a group show would be boring, so we said ‘Let’s put paper over the entire surface of the gallery walls and just draw with everyone we wanted to draw with in the city.’” A total of 28 artists were involved in the first ever En Masse show.

After the exhibition at Pangée, several of En Masse’s members remained in contact and continued to collaborate. Engaging with their community was a part of the collective’s aim from the beginning. According to Botkin, “it was always part of the initial discussion in terms of there being this collaborative event, that it was very natural that there be some sort of broader sense of growth to the project – moving into mentoring or something that had a real sense of community outreach.”

The decision to work specifically with students came about after En Masse was offered the use of a large basement in Old Montreal to decorate and convert into a shared community space. They never completed the project, because, as Botkin said, “something was bugging us about that idea, and quickly we realized that that space would have no meaning if the kids who were going to use it were not involved somehow.”

After speaking with a friend who teaches at one of the EMSB Outreach schools, Botkin and his fellow artists called schools in September looking for students who might want to be involved in creating art. By the end of the month, they had gathered 12 students, ranging from 15 to 18 years old, from six Outreach schools. The schools, which Botkin described as “really, very underfunded, real labour-of-love projects,” offer smaller, non-traditional models of education.

With six artists working with the students, a much smaller group than the original En Masse collective, the drawing on display at Red Bird was created over the space of just four days. Despite that fact that, as Botkin said, “most of [the students] had never been in a gallery before,” the students took to the project and working collaboratively very quickly.

The final product is certainly a unified work that evidences the collaborative nature of the students’ and artists’ work, but on closer inspection, it also reveals a diverse multiplicity of styles, ranging from graffiti tags to comic book-style illustration to delicate black and white drawings of faces and hands.

The drawings also contain openly political threads, which express anger and frustration. This is perhaps a reflection of the fairly marginalized position of many of the student-artists; students often come to Outreach schools because of trouble succeeding at traditional high schools. EMSB Outreach teacher Meaghan McNerney emphasized the importance of “focusing more on outreach, on the alternative network. Those kids really need some extra motivation, and they don’t have a chance to do art.”

With this in mind, the project and show have been a huge success. Initial concerns about whether the collaboration would be rewarding for the students have been thoroughly put to rest, and En Masse and the EMSB Outreach are already planning a second version of the project. The students are equally enthusiastic; according to McNerney, “the kids are already saying ‘We’re going to do this again, right?’”

The En Masse-EMSB student collaboration will be up at Red Bird Studio Gallery (135 Van Horne) through October 31.